How to Handle Separation Anxiety in Babies

It's normal for your little one to cry when you leave—but it's still painful. Learn to cope with these tips for separation anxiety in babies.

Leaving your baby is never easy, but it's especially brutal if they scream, cry, and cling whenever you head out. But separation anxiety is a normal part of development. "It's an indication that a child is attached to his parents," says Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of UC Davis in Davis, California. Ultimately, this strong sense of security will help your baby learn to be an independent toddler. In the meantime, though, you can follow these tips for handling separation anxiety with ease.

When Does Separation Anxiety Start in Babies?

You can blame separation anxiety on intellectual development. "During the first months of life, your baby has no idea that she's independent from her caregiver," says Jude Cassidy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in College Park. That's why young babies happily move from one lap to another.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the timing and intensity of separation anxiety vary widely among babies. It can start as early as 4 or 5 months old. However, more typically, it occurs around 9 months old, says the AAP.

By around 8 months, your infant begins to readily distinguish between people, and they form strong emotional attachments to their caregivers. They're also learning the concept of object permanence: Things and people (including their parents) still exist even when they can't see them anymore. "When you add these developmental advances together, you've got the perfect equation for separation anxiety," Dr. Cassidy says.

It can rear its head when you're dropping your baby off at daycare—or when you're simply going to the bathroom. And when it seems that your baby is finally beginning to adapt, separation anxiety often makes a resurgence around 15 months. It's a little different this time around, though: Your child understands that you're somewhere else when you leave, but they don't know if you're leaving for one minute or forever.

African girl crying and reaching upward
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Signs of Separation Anxiety in Infants

"The timing and intensity of the separation anxiety may be different for different children," says Jessica Mercer Young, Ph.D., a research scientist at Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts. Your little one will likely get clingy and cry as soon as you leave their side. It doesn't matter whether they're at daycare, in their crib, or at Grandma's house—the tears will typically be shed regardless. Rest assured, though, they'll probably calm down shortly after you walk out the door.

The intensity of your child's reaction depends on their temperament and their typical routine. Other factors play a role, too: Infants who have been exposed early on to caregivers other than their parents tend to have an easier time dealing with departures in later months. However, if your baby is tired, hungry, or sick, they'll likely have a very hard time if you leave. So, how can you cope when your baby is upset, but you've got to dash? Try some of these expert tips.

Tips for Separation Anxiety in Babies

While your baby's cries might tempt you to cancel your plans, giving in will only make matters worse the next time you need to leave. And babies really do tend to calm down very quickly after you've left. In the meantime, here's what you can do to comfort your child.

Practice separation

To make separation less of a shock, play peekaboo with your baby to reinforce the notion that you'll always return. You can also send stuffed animals or dolls on little "journeys" and then reunite them with your child. Finally, try leaving them for a few short periods of time—a half hour to an hour—with someone they know and trust. Once they see that you always return (and that other caregivers are fun and loving, too), consider trying out using a babysitter for longer chunks of time.

Create a goodbye ritual

Routine is especially important for younger babies, notes Donna Holloran, owner of Babygroup, Inc. in Santa Monica, California. Try creating a goodbye ritual that will soothe both of you and prepare your baby for the separation. A few things to try can include:

  • Sing a little song together.
  • Give your child a hug and kiss or a little wave.
  • Create a simple but fun secret handshake.
  • Recite a little goodbye rhyme together.

Find whatever works for you and stick to it—even if they cry.

Avoid sneaking out

A big mistake is trying to leave when your child is not looking or sneaking away when the child is engaged in an activity without saying goodbye. "The child may suddenly become anxious or upset that she didn't get a chance to say goodbye or give a kiss goodbye," Dr. Young explains.

Don't draw out your departure

It's normal and healthy for your baby to cry when you leave, so don't discourage it. "The ability to be aware of and express one's feelings is an important emotional foundation," says Dr. Cassidy.

That does not mean, however, that you should delay departure—or that you should feel guilty for leaving. Hanging around trying to comfort them may only prolong the agony. Instead, give your child a hug and a kiss, tell them you love them, and hand them over to the caregiver. Soon enough, they'll stop crying.

Aim to remain calm

Do your best to keep your emotions in check. As hard as it may be, hold the tears—at least until you get to the car. If your child sees you upset, that may only heighten their own anxiety and distress. If you're calm, they will feel more secure and will eventually learn to model that feeling as well.

Plan a happy reunion

"As parents, we often overlook an important part of the separation process: the reunion," says Dr. Thompson. "Happy reunion rituals are essential to reinforcing the parent-child bond and keeping separation anxiety in check."

Dr. Thompson suggests following your child's cues. If they reach up to you when you arrive, give them a big hug and just hang out with them a little while before heading back inside. If they wave a toy, get down and play with them for a few minutes. "These kinds of happy returns remind your child that no matter how sad it is when Mommy and Daddy leave," Dr. Thompson says, "it's always wonderful when they come back."

Stock up on "goodbye gear"

Consider offering your child a comfort item like a stuffed animal or blanket that can comfort them when you leave. You can also invest in an inexpensive photo album filled with family photos or record yourself reading a story or saying "I love you" on tape.

Alleviate your worries

Don't hesitate to check on your child. It doesn't matter how many times it happens—when your child cries as you leave, it will break your heart. Don't be embarrassed to check in throughout the day. It will give you peace of mind and lessen the guilt of leaving.

Establish a soothing bedtime routine

Dealing with separation anxiety at night? Try making a relaxing routine that you follow at bedtime: bath, books, goodnight kiss, etc. This consistent routine will prepare your baby for the upcoming separation.

You can also record yourself reading stories or singing lullabies and turn it on when they're feeling alone or scared. The same suggestions of providing a consistent routine, sticking to your plan, remaining calm, and not drawing out your departure (in this case from their room) also hold true for successful nighttime goodbyes.

The Bottom Line

It can be heartwrenching to leave your baby when they cry out for you. But don't shy away from the experience. Yes, it's super hard to do but it's also good for both of you. Learning to cope with separation and trust that you'll return is a vital part of your baby's development—and you need time on your own, whether for work, errands, fun, or relaxation. Their tears just mean they're processing their emotions—and that's a good thing! And when you reunite, you show them that they can always count on you, which makes your bond all the stronger.

Updated by Diane Benson Harrington ,
and Jacqueline Mroz
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